Physics In Fantasy Novels

Open nearly any fantasy novel, and one of the first things you'll see is a map of the territory. These maps are usually divided into the relevant domains: either they will show each kingdom or nation within the novel, or they will show various landmarks and places where "the elves" live, and "the dwarves" live, etc.

What strikes me about these maps is, although they cover the full world relevant to the novel you're reading, they don't depict a world. That is, they do not depict a planet. The concept of a planet is non-existent in fantasy literature, of course, because the idea of a planet is out of scope. The characters have no intention of sailing around the globe like Ferdinand Magellan, so all the maps really need to show you is where the elves live, how far that place is from the farm where the main characters grew up, and perhaps a few mystical, magical landmarks they are sure to encounter as they travel. It may also be of benefit to show where the evil demons come from, far beyond the great mountains to the north, or whatever. But there is nothing beyond the elves, and nothing beyond the demons, because anything further than the boundaries of the map is outside the scope of the novel.

This should work out fine, all things considered, except for the fact that fantasy novels are usually about the fight between the Most Evil Thing In The Whole World, Who Is Trying To Conquer The World and the good guys, whoever they are. If your story is about an evil thing that's trying to take over the world, and your map only covers a small area that can be spanned on foot or perhaps horseback, there is a gap in your story, comprised of the whole entire rest of the world. What happens over there? Why isn't the great final battle between good and evil happening over there, off the map? And if nothing's happening way over there, then why not? Why aren't those people suffering from the evil that's trying to take over the world?

Meanwhile, the characters still chart their directions using the stars. It's not as if this is an imaginary flat Earth. They're obviously making some use of planetary alignment; there is still a sense of physics going on. The authors merely pick and choose which laws of physics can be obeyed and which cannot.

This is not inherently a problem, except for the fact that if one's book isn't written well, then violations of the laws of physics start to seem arbitrary. If the Great Evil One has cast the land into permanent winter, and there exists a whole society flourishing on the other side of the furthest ocean on the map, we're left wondering why those folks don't just send some help. If the good guys can travel through space using a magic doorway, why do they ever bother walking anywhere at all? If magic can heat and light and heal, then why does anyone bother farming, chopping firewood, lighting torches, etc.? What determines the rules that must be followed in order to account for both great power and the rarity of that power? If the answers to such questions are too arbitrary, then the story itself becomes disappointing and unrealistic.

But, it's a catch-22. After all, it's not the business of a fantasy novel to build an alternate physics. That's more like science-fiction, and there is clearly a difference between fantasy and science-fiction. Besides that, some mystery about how black magic works makes black magic more appealing. If you understand exactly how everything works, then it's not compelling anymore.

What determines the right mix of world-completeness and fantastical mystery? How much of the responsibility is on the writer, and how much on the reader? It's a difficult balance to strike.

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